‘He’s a war criminal’: Elite Putin security officer defects
Apr 4, 2023, 8:15 AM
(Dossier Center via AP)
LONDON (AP) — On October 14, a Russian engineer named Gleb Karakulov boarded a flight from Kazakhstan to Turkey with his wife and daughter. He switched off his phone to shut out the crescendo of urgent, enraged messages, said goodbye to his life in Russia and tried to calm his fast-beating heart.
But this was no ordinary Russian defector. Karakulov was an officer in President Vladimir Putin’s secretive elite personal security service — one of the few Russians to flee and go public who have rank, as well as knowledge of intimate details of Putin’s life and potentially classified information.
Karakulov, who was responsible for secure communications, said moral opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and his fear of dying there drove him to speak out, despite the risks to himself and his family. He said he hoped to inspire other Russians to speak out also.
“Our President has become a war criminal,” he said. “It is time to end this war and stop being silent.”
Karakulov’s account generally conforms with others that paint the Russian president as a once charismatic but increasingly isolated leader, who doesn’t use a cell phone or the Internet and insists on access to Russian state television wherever he goes. He also offered new details about how Putin’s paranoia appears to have deepened since his decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022. Putin now prefers to avoid airplanes and travel on a special armored train, he said, and he ordered a bunker at the Russian embassy in Kazakhstan outfitted with a secure communications line in October — the first time Karakulov had ever fielded such a request.
Along with information on Putin, Karakulov’s testimony offers an intimate view of one man’s decision to defect — without telling his own mother, who he said remains a strong Putin supporter. It raises critical questions about how deep the Russian public’s acceptance of the war runs, and how Putin’s opponents in the West and beyond might leverage any silent opposition.
While not speaking directly about his case, an official with a security background from a NATO country said a defection like Karakulov’s “has a very great level of interest.” He spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive political matters.
“That would be seen as a very serious blow to the president himself because he is extremely keen on his security, and his security is compromised,” he said. “That’s something that he would be very unhappy about — particularly if the compromise is to do with communications, upon which a great deal relies.”
PUTIN IS “SIMPLY AFRAID”
As an engineer in a field unit of the presidential communications department of the Federal Protective Service, or FSO, Karakulov was responsible for setting up secure communications for the Russian president and prime minister wherever they went. While he was not a confidant of Putin’s, Karakulov spent years in his service, observing him from unusually close quarters from 2009 through late 2022.
Karakulov, his wife and his child have gone underground, and it was impossible to speak with them directly due to security constraints.
The Dossier Center, a London-based investigative group funded by Russian opposition figure Mikhail Khodorkovsky, interviewed Karakulov multiple times and shared video and transcripts of more than six hours of those interviews with The Associated Press, as well as the Danish Broadcasting Corporation DR, Swedish Television SVT, and the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation NRK. The Dossier Center confirmed the authenticity of Karakulov’s passport and FSO work identity card, and cross-checked details of his biography against Russian government records, leaked personal data and social media postings.
The Associated Press reviewed the materials from the Dossier Center and independently confirmed Karakulov’s identity with three sources in the U.S. and Europe, who were not authorized to speak publicly. AP also independently corroborated personal details, including Karakulov’s passport numbers, date and place of birth, two registered addresses, and the names and ages of family members, but was unable to verify details of his defection.
AP also confirmed that Karakulov is listed as a wanted man in the Russian Interior Ministry’s public database of criminal suspects. The Interior Ministry initiated a criminal investigation against Karakulov on October 26 for desertion during a time of military mobilization, according to documents obtained by the Dossier Center and seen by the AP.
The FSO is one of the most secretive branches of Russia’s security services.
“Even when they quit, they never talk, but they know a lot of details of the private life of the president and the prime minister,” said Katya Hakim, a senior researcher at the Dossier Center.
The Kremlin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Karakulov moved as part of an advance team, often with enough specialized communications equipment to fill a KAMAZ truck. He said he has taken more than 180 trips with the Russian president, and contrary to widespread speculation, Putin appears to be in better shape than most people his age. Putin has only cancelled a few trips due to illness and has annual medical check-ups, he said.
Unlike the Prime Minister, Putin does not require secure internet access on his trips, Karakulov said.
“In all my service, I have never seen him with a mobile phone,” he said. “All the information he receives is only from people close to him. That is, he lives in a kind of information vacuum.”
Karakulov’s work brought him to luxury hotels for summits, beach resorts in Cuba, yachts — and aboard a special armored train outfitted for the Russian president.
Putin’s train looks like any other, painted grey with a red stripe to blend in with other railway carriages in Russia. Putin didn’t like the fact that airplanes can be tracked, preferring the stealth of a nondescript train car, Karakulov said.
“I understand that he’s simply afraid,” he said.
Putin began to use the train regularly in the run-up to the Feb. 2022 invasion, Karakulov said. Even last year, Putin continued to insist on strict anti-Covid measures, and FSO employees took shifts in two-week quarantine so there would always be a pool of people cleared to travel with Putin on the train, he said.
Putin has set up identical offices in multiple locations, with matching details down to the desk and wall hangings, and official reports sometimes say he’s one place when he is actually in another, according to Karakulov and prior reporting by a Russian media outlet. When Putin was in Sochi, security officials would deliberately pretend he was leaving, bringing in a plane and sending off a motorcade, when he was in fact staying, Karakulov said.
“The guys would talk about this, really laughing,” he said. “I think that this is an attempt to confuse, first, intelligence, and second, so that there are no assassination attempts.”
FACES OF WARRIORS
Karakulov’s defection was a surprising turn for a family steeped in patriotic military tradition.
Born in Dagestan, Karakulov was raised to be ready for war, believing it was his sacred duty to defend his homeland. After graduating from a military academy, he found his way into the FSO.
“To be close to the president — it sounded pretty cool,” he said.
Karakulov’s father is a former military man, who has worked as a professional photographer, among other jobs. He is working on a project he calls “Faces of Warriors,” a series of elegant, hagiographic portraits of Russian soldiers and veterans.
Karakulov’s brother is a local government official, records show, and served as the point person for a regional, government-backed project devoted to “civic patriotism” and honoring “Heroes of the Fatherland.”
Karakulov’s job introduced him to a world beyond his family. Even as his father and brother marched in patriotic military parades, his own doubts deepened. He’s horrified to think that he might also be rallying around the letter Z in support of the war in Ukraine if his job hadn’t taught him to see through the lies of Russian state television.
“Thanks to my work in the FSO, I have seen how information is distorted,” he said.
He also began to question the conspicuous spending of Russia’s top leaders. He said he saw officials convene large delegations at luxurious resorts that cost more each night than his monthly salary. They’d all attend a brief meeting and then hang out for a week, he said.
“If this is from the budget, then the question is, ‘Is it not too much to spend this kind of money on one person?’” he said. “If it’s not from the budget, then it’s total corruption.”
Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine was a breaking point, he said. He told his wife he wanted out. He didn’t want their young daughter brainwashed in pre-school, where children were doing patriotic salutes and being told about bombs.
“This is not the future I would like for my child,” he said.
With Russia’s September mobilization drive, Karakulov realized that if he quit his job, he was likely to be drafted into a war he didn’t want to fight. But even if he stayed, he could get sent to the front.
He learned that some of his colleagues had been dispatched to Ukraine and killed. He saw photos of FSO crews destroyed by Ukrainian rockets, with dozens likely dead.
He was outraged that no one in Russia acknowledged those deaths.
“There’s no information about them,” Karakulov said. “What were they doing there? Why did they end up there? Why did they die there?”
The only conversations he had were with colleagues who seemed to relish the war. He imagined others must share his views, but he had no way to find them.
“They simply cannot even open their mouths,” he said.
Karakulov said he couldn’t tell his parents about his disillusionment either, because their minds had been molded by years of watching Russian state television.
As the war streamed in on the evening news, his parents seemed to savor the view from the front. He found it unbearable and asked his mother to turn off the TV. She refused.
He said he tried to explain to her that Ukraine is an independent country, but she immediately cut him off. “What is this?” she said to him. “You want to run away? Are you some kind of foreign agent?”
He never told them he was leaving.
In October, a series of official meetings in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, gave Karakulov his chance to run away. He and his wife packed their lives into three suitcases. He flew out Oct. 6 with the rest of his team. His wife and daughter joined two days later, staying in a separate hotel.
But each day, Karakulov found another reason not to go.
On the last day of the delegation, Oct. 14., he realized he couldn’t postpone any longer. His wife collected his suitcase from his hotel room to avoid raising suspicion. He slipped away after lunch, telling colleagues that he was heading out to buy souvenirs.
He climbed in a taxi with his wife and daughter and set off for the airport around 3 p.m.
“From then on, it was only a matter of my own nerves,” he said.
He got through check-in and started getting messages from colleagues asking where he was. The flight was delayed by an hour. He could feel a distant fury building against him. By 5 p.m., he figured people had started to look for him.
“You scumbag,” read one message.
Fifteen minutes before take-off, he switched off his phone.
His wife was very upset. They spent the 5 1/2-hour flight waiting for something to go wrong.
When they finally cleared passport control in Turkey, Karakulov said it was like a great stone had fallen from his soul.
He said he knows many people will accuse him of being unpatriotic, but he disagrees.
“Patriotism is when you love your country,” he said. “In this case, our homeland needs to be saved, because something crazy and terrible is happening in our country. We need to fix this.”
THE PRICE OF DISSENT
What the future holds for Karakulov — and anyone who might dare to follow in his footsteps — is far from clear.
He was not the only one who wanted out.
On September 27, days after Russia’s mobilization, an engineer at a regional FSO center in Siberia named Mikhail Zhilin snuck through the forest across the border to Kazakhstan. Many Russians fled to Kazakhstan to avoid the draft, but the authorities refused Zhilin’s request for asylum and sent him back to Russia. On March 20, a Russian court sentenced him to six and a half years in a penal colony.
Abbas Gallyamov, a Russian political analyst now living in Israel who was a speechwriter for Putin from 2000 — 2001 and again from 2008 — 2010, said he believes the majority of Russia’s elites secretly oppose Putin’s war. He added that if the West had offered them an exit strategy instead of sanctions, more might have left.
“They are all shocked,” he said. “From their point of view, there was no reason to do this because everything was okay…now all of a sudden, everything collapsed…We’re enemies of the world.”
Gallyamov, like Karakulov, is on the wanted list of Russia’s Interior Ministry. He said a defection like Karakulov’s is a particular blow because the FSO is like a “royal elite” above other military and security structures in Russia, charged with protecting the state’s most precious asset: Putin himself.
“They will be very angry,” he said. “There will be hysterics.”
Tatiana Stanovaya, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Russian public opinion about the war is divided but there is little space for public dissent, especially for people working within the system.
“The rule is that the elite stick to Putin,” she said.
Those who do leave Russia often pay a price to keep their conscience clear.
Boris Bondarev, a career Russian diplomat in Geneva, quit in May and denounced the war.
Speaking from an undisclosed location in Switzerland, Bondarev told the AP he is living as a political refugee on a government allowance, with security constraints he’d rather leave “deliberately ambiguous.” He can’t find a job and has had to move apartments several times, for both financial and safety reasons. He can’t travel freely — not even to meet a reporter for a cup of coffee in town.
“I sent my CVs to dozens of think tanks in the U.S., in the U.K., in Europe, and most were ignored,” he said. “I got a few answers that ‘sorry, but we already have Russia experts.’”
He said there are plenty of Russians who quietly oppose the war but don’t dare speak out, for fear of losing their livelihoods. A few colleagues who quit Russia’s Foreign Ministry after he did contacted him for advice. They were having trouble finding work. One returned to Moscow because he couldn’t make a living outside of Russia, he said.
Bondarev said he sometimes has second thoughts when he sees pictures of people eating out at nice restaurants in Moscow, living the kind of good life he can no longer afford.
But then he remembers the price: Brainwashing, propaganda, hypocrisy.
“I would come to my office at nine and leave at 6 p.m. and in between I would have to produce numerous papers explaining why Ukraine attacked Russia,” he said. “I don’t want it. No, no, I can’t complain today…I live very, very well.”
Associated Press reporters Lynn Berry and Aamer Madhani in Washington, Jamey Keaton in Geneva and Joanna Kozlowska in London contributed to this report.